President Obama at Cairo University (AP)"I think what the president is unfolding – and I say unfolding to distinguish it from announcing a strategy – is a strategy in which the president indicates that the parties have things they have to do on the ground. Those are necessary but not sufficient in order to create an atmosphere that can sustain negotiations. And at the same time, I am confident that he is talking to the leadership about the negotiations, so that you’ve got movement along a wide front."
President Obama is in Saudi Arabia today and Egypt tomorrow. He’s already met with King Abdullah of Jordan, President Peres of Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and Palestinian Authority President Abbas. His administration has clearly made resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict a high priority. How would you analyze the Obama administration’s moves on the peace process thus far?
I think the first four months of the administration have really been quite exciting. Number one, the president determined from the outset that the peace process was a presidential priority. That doesn’t mean that he’s the action officer for the peace process, but he has clearly let the parties in the region know that this is an issue that he will follow closely. Number two, by appointing George Mitchell – a very senior, experienced and successful envoy – as a presidential envoy, the president gave meaning to the idea that this is a presidential priority. And number three, the president has used a variety of occasions to reach out to Arabs and Israelis with a different kind of vocabulary and a different set of priorities, particularly the idea that there is a need to talk honestly about issues which very often have been talked about behind closed doors but have not been addressed. The most vocal of those issues right now is settlements. But I think that his speech in Egypt will indicate that he is also prepared to talk honestly and openly about a range of other issues related to the Middle East generally and to the peace process specifically.
How is the current conversation between the United States and Israel about settlements different than those in the past?
First, it’s taking place at the outset of an administration. There have been conversations over the past 25-30 years, but very often they have taken place in either unstructured ways or some time into an administration. The president has indicated by talking about it so soon and so early that he sees this as an important issue between Israel and the United States. Second, this conversation is very different because the president is not using hackneyed formulations here about ‘obstacles to peace,’ nor has he crossed the street to talk about illegalities. Those are diplomatic formulations. He’s basically saying to Israel, ‘This has been wrong to do this for many years, and if you persist in doing it, it’s only going to continue to be wrong, so it’s time to stop.’ There’s no promise that there will be any reciprocation on the part of Arabs, and there’s no promise that life will be better in terms of peace. But the president is trying to indicate to the Israelis that this is a responsibility that they have to shoulder and take on, and thus it is a very different conversation from what we’ve had in the past.
The president has also talked about this in terms of Road Map obligations. What tools does the United States have to reinforce a demand to freeze settlements?
Citing the Road Map is important because the Road Map had obligations for both sides, but they were to be undertaken in a sense irrespective of whether the other side fulfilled its obligations—parallel and mutually reinforcing, but not linked in any way. So, it gives the president legitimacy to say to Israel, ‘You need to do this on settlements’ regardless of whether the Palestinians do the right thing on violence, on state building or anything else. And one can be confident that in his conversations with Abbas, he raised Palestinian requirements under the Road Map.
The issue of what to do if Israel doesn’t fulfill its obligations is one the administration will be thinking about quietly. I think it’s particularly unwise to think about these issues publicly before the administration has the chance to articulate its views privately to Israel. The other day, I think it was the New York Times that cited an unnamed administration official who was talking about changing policy in the UN, and that was very quickly pulled back by the White House spokesman. This public speculation doesn’t help, and that may not be the right way to start, by laying out a menu of consequences. I think these are issues that need very quiet conversation, but also need to show that there is determination behind the president’s demand for a freeze on settlements.
Would you say the same thing in terms of requiring the Palestinians to live up to their obligations?
How do you expect the administration’s efforts to unfold? There are rumors that there’s going to be a Quartet peace plan in the coming months, that President Obama will be releasing some sort of six-month plan in July. What would you expect them to be doing right now, or planning to do?
I think there will be conversations with the Quartet because the president does have a belief that multilateral diplomacy can be helpful. But I don’t believe that there will be a Quartet peace plan or even a U.S. peace plan in the next period. I think what the president is unfolding – and I say unfolding to distinguish it from announcing a strategy – is a strategy in which the president indicates that the parties have things they have to do on the ground. Those are necessary but not sufficient in order to create an atmosphere that can sustain negotiations. And at the same time, I am confident that he is talking to the leadership about the negotiations, so that you’ve got movement along a wide front. It doesn’t say that you have to do one, two and three before you get to four. Basically, it says, we know where we want to get to, and it means you have to do a lot of things simultaneously. You have to be doing the changes on the ground, you have to be preparing for substantive talks and you have to be conditioning your public to understand that there may be hard decisions to come. So you’re moving across a wide front rather than in a sequential manner. And that’s why I would call this an unfolding strategy rather than some announceable game plan. I’d be surprised if the president announced a U.S. plan or initiative in the period ahead. I don’t think that’s the way he’s looking at this.
Lost in the headlines about settlements and Iran is the question of Gaza. Although there was a donors’ conference in March, reconstruction is stalled. What can be done to allow reconstruction to begin and humanitarian aid to flow?
Part of the set of understandings after Gaza was that there was also going to be change on the ground with respect to who would administer the aid, and whether or not smuggling would continue and what kind of security mechanisms would be put in place, internationally supervised or not. And a lot of that has not happened, so it’s not just a question of getting the donor community remobilized. That’s certainly one issue. But it’s also kind of re-energizing this package approach which says that there were four or five separable but interrelated issues that brought about crisis in Gaza, and you can’t just pick and choose the ones that are convenient in order to resolve them. Now, while this happens, the people on the ground are still not being served in terms of the humanitarian or other social requirements. And that’s why, even as we work out this package, the provision of humanitarian assistance has to continue and be expanded. But that’s not going to be a substitute for a change in the way the economic and trade and commerce situation in Gaza takes place that will allow for some return to normal life.
In their press conference last week, President Obama praised President Abbas for his position that any Palestinian unity government must meet the Quartet requirements, even if individual members of the government do not. On the other hand, it seems as if Egypt and Saudi Arabia appear to be pushing for reconciliation in whatever form. How do you see this playing out?
Abbas so far has been very cautious on the question of reconciliation and I think that’s now fed back into the talks, which seem to be stalled. Clearly, Hamas has objectives and goals which are far beyond their capacity to achieve in terms of either a PA policy or changes in American policy or acceptance of their ideology. But I think it’s also Abbas’ caution which is at play here. He is comfortable with the situation in the West Bank, although he knows it can’t last forever, and I think he’s cautious because he doesn’t want to upset that situation by reintroducing Hamas in a manner that would give legitimacy to Hamas and therefore possibly undermine that stability. The thing to watch for in terms of U.S. policy is to what degree Abbas is given a kind of autonomous capability of negotiating this outcome. I don’t think we want to be as surprised as we were at Mecca, with an agreement that happens and then we have to figure out what to do. So, my guess is that there will be very close consultations with Abbas to make sure that we’re in lockstep as he proceeds in this cautious manner on reconciliation.
The Arab Peace Initiative is being sold on the one side by King Abdullah of Jordon as a 57-country plan for peace. He’s spoken about operationalizing it—for instance if Israel freezes settlement building then perhaps some Arab states will open trade offices in Israel. On the other hand, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia sees the initiative as something that will only go into effect when Israel has made peace with the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Moreover, there were calls in the recent Arab League meeting to put a deadline on the Arab Peace Initiative. Which approach do you think will prevail, and how can the United States impact which approach prevails?
Frankly I think that all of that is old think—the ‘if … then’ way of formulating, or the ‘we won’t do something until the process is completed,’ or thinking that an approach to peace has some kind of deadline. I would think that as the president meets with Arab leaders, this is going to be one of his arguments. I don’t think the president is interested in an ‘if … then’ approach—a kind of tit for tat, or if you do this, then the other side should do that. It’s very much an old way of doing things and it has never been effective.
I think what the president will want to lay out is the idea that we are working hard with the Israelis on an issue that we know is of critical importance to the Arab world, and that’s settlements. And we need to be working with the Arabs on issues that are of critical importance to Israel—that’s recognition, security, economic relations and a normal life. And I think that the president in a sense will say to both sides, ‘I’m the linkage between these things but don’t start drawing linkages which can’t be achieved.’
Similarly, on deadlines, if the Arab world has come to a point where it is ready to recognize the state of Israel, that doesn’t have a deadline, because if it has a deadline, then why would Israel give it any credibility? So the Arabs might say the diplomacy needs to be expedited and diplomacy doesn’t have a free ride to fail, but the idea that somehow recognition of Israel or providing security for Israelis and Palestinians can be turned on and off at the whim of policy suggests that it’s not serious policy, and I think that the president will push back against that.
Some commentators have said recently that the Israeli-Syrian track is more likely to be resolved at this point and that the United States should focus its attention on this arena. What is your take on this analysis?
I disagree with this idea. We’ve heard phrases like ‘low-hanging fruit’ and so forth. I disagree. We know that on the Syrian track we have four resolvable issues: territories, security, water and political relations or normalization. Those are resolvable, there’s no question about it. But there’s a context to these issues which is very challenging – Syria’s relations with Lebanon, Syria’s relations with terrorist groups, Syria’s relations with Iran – and these are not so easy to deal with.
Secondly, irrespective of the issues of the peace process, the U.S.-Syrian relationship needs some very careful tending, because it’s gone through a very bad period. And so far the administration has been doing this cautiously but effectively. You start the dialogue at a reasonable level—Jeff Feltman and Dan Shapiro, these are senior officials, but they’re not your top officials. There’s a report today that a military delegation will visit Damascus at some point, and this will be the first time in years that we’ve had a conversation on joint military concerns. But I think that doesn’t translate into immediate breakthrough possibilities.
If one or the other side says to us, this is where we want to invest real effort and we’re prepared to really go the distance quickly, then you also have to be agile enough to take advantage of that. But that has never happened on the Syrian-Israeli track, and I don’t expect it to happen now.
You were ambassador to Egypt from 1997 to 2001, and President Obama chose Cairo as the place where he is going to give his speech to the Muslim world. From your experience, is that a good choice, what does it mean and what impact will it have?
I think Cairo was in effect the only choice that made sense. There are places with much larger Muslim populations – Indonesia or India, for example – but you lose the flavor of the Arab-Muslim connection once you leave the Middle East. In the Middle East, there’s really no place that brings the historical leadership, depth, issues that Cairo brings to this as a venue. Now, it’s not a carefree venue. While on the one hand, you are addressing an audience in one of the most – if not the most – important Arab country, certainly a long-time center of Islamic influence, but there are also issues between us and Egypt which are unresolved, particularly on the question of human rights and democratization. But this is a president who hasn’t shied away from challenging situations, and at a minimum, he can use the rhetoric of this speech to begin to lay out his thinking in a manner that I think can both preserve the integrity of our relationship with Egypt but also maintain the dialogue that we have had on these issues of political change. And it’s doable, it’s a doable proposition, you don’t have to join one or the other camp. It may disappoint both camps because one will want nothing said and the other will want everything said, but American policy often has to bridge these polar opposites, and I think the president can do so. And, therefore, Egypt presents also an interesting place for him to be able to talk to these issues.
This administration has an interesting challenge in terms of democracy promotion because it doesn’t want to continue down the road that President Bush laid out, but it doesn’t want to ignore these issues. So how would you define what their approach is, or what it might be?
It’s hard to tell because it hasn’t really been articulated yet, although the president, I think, began to hint at it in a conversation he had with the New York Times yesterday, or the day before, in talking about American values. In the previous administration there was a lot of talk about what other people should do, and all that did, in some respects, was to continue to raise the double standards question. If you are doing Abu Ghraib, how can you talk to us about the proper treatment of people in detention? If you are doing Guantanamo, how can you talk to us about the rule of law? If you are not doing anything about either Palestinian terrorism or Israeli settlements, how can you talk to us about the importance of commitments and responsibilities in a democratic society? So the president has an opportunity here to change the nature of how we address the Arab world. We are not a perfect system, we don’t have to apologize for that, but we can talk about the fact that even in an imperfect system we wrestle with these issues all the time. And you don’t have to harangue Arabs and Muslims about wrestling with these issues. So I would think the president is going to avoid preaching to Muslims about what to do, but I think he will lay out the ideas that motivate us and that we think make us a society worth looking at, as an inspiration for others to think about their own societies. So it’s a very different way of approaching these issues. What I don’t know is how far he may get in articulating a kind of vision of democratization, that’s hard to tell, and we’ll have to just wait and see.
My last question is, you’re here to do an event on the challenges Jerusalem poses to a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Can you tell us briefly about the approach you would advocate for dealing with this difficult issue?
As a result of a long-term study undertaken by the University of Windsor, in which Princeton University participated, we’ve come to the conclusion that all the issues in Jerusalem are resolvable through bilateral negotiations, except for a final determination of the Old City, where all of the questions relating to sovereignty and holiness and sacred space and so forth, come together in a manner that neither side can yield to the other. We felt that all the possible compromises that have been looked at over the years by others had always wrestled with this question of sovereignty but had come up short in developing ideas—even if they were joint sovereignty or shared sovereignty or whatever. So the idea we’ve come up with is basically the two sides agree not to agree, but to administer the city through a special regime. In other words, the two sides negotiate what to do about the Old City, with neither side asserting sovereignty, but handing over certain responsibilities to a third party, an international party. It’s not internationalization, because there’s no legal standing for the third party outside of the agreement of the two sides, but it’s a way of maintaining the positions that the two sides have on Jerusalem, having life go on, and not having Jerusalem become the impediment to fulfilling all the rest of the agreement that they can possibly reach.